Social cohesion is an underappreciated but crucial element in development, state building, and poverty reduction.
It is an especially important factor in determining whether a state is fragile or not. As I argued in Fixing Fragile States:
Two factors above all others decide how a country’s political, economic, and societal life evolves: a population’s capacity to cooperate (which depends, for the most part, on the level of social cohesion) and its ability to take advantage of a set of shared, productive institutions (especially informal institutions at the crucial early stages of development when formal institutions are usually feeble and ineffectual). . . . These two ingredients shape how a government interacts with its citizens; how officials, politicians, and businesspeople behave; and how effective foreign efforts to upgrade governance will be. Together with the set of policies adopted by the government, they make up the three major determinants of a country’s capacity to advance.
Fragile states are deficient in both these areas. And the combination of political identity fragmentation and weak national institutions works in a vicious cycle that severely undermines the legitimacy of the state, leading to political orders that are highly unstable and hard to reform.
But social cohesion has rarely attracted the attention it deserves from the development community. Dependent on sociopolitical factors that are hard to measure, analyze, and understand, it holds no prominent place in any international agency’s programming. Like almost everything related to the “software” of how states work, it is all too easily ignored.
This may be changing at least at the margins—in conferences and reports. The World Bank, for instance, is using it to discuss jobs in its forthcoming World Development Report. And the OECD recently published Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World.
This is progress of a sort, but these conferences and reports are missing something important. Instead of seeing social cohesion as a “complex cultural, psychological and social phenomenon,” as Duncan Green put it on his blog earlier this year, they look at economic issues and technocratic solutions. The OECD report, for instance, promotes redistribution via progressive tax reform and increased and more pro-poor public spending; investment in education; protecting poor people against volatility via social protection and improved labor market institutions such as the minimum wage.
There is nothing particularly wrong with most of this agenda, but it does not get to the heart of the matter. A country with high levels of social cohesion would likely have a leadership with an interest in introducing programs that helped the poor. A country that had little social cohesion would likely have a leadership that had little interest in helping the poor. These proposals matter far less than trying to figure out what affects elite attitudes and what might be done to make elites feel that the poor is “one of us.” Continue reading